Every year I get at least one email from a student that shows me they have really ‘got’ what we have been studying. Last year a guy found Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons and was adamant (completely correctly in my view) that the philosophy described a sort of Christian ‘Platonism’, an idea of the human’s essence that was rejected by Jean-Paul Sartre (this was what we had been studying).
Anyway there’s more about that on my ib philosophy page, but the email I got this year was about the experience of doing philosophy. IB philosophy is a wonderful course with an emphasis on doing philosophy rather than just learning about it.It takes two years and the entire structure of the course is about helping the students to become the IB learner profile rather than just gaining some knowledge in order to repeat it. It is far more academically challenging and philosophically useful than any of the courses I have encountered that are taught elsewhere in Scotland or England. Those students that choose to take the ‘higher level’ (HL) version of the subject complete and exam paper on the question of ‘What is Philosophy?’, reflecting upon their mounting experience of studying it, and all students of both HL and Standard levels are required to complete a unit on ‘what makes a person?’
Of course this question is central to almost every other philosophical foray and it has always astounded me how certain exam boards think they can simply ‘miss it out’ of their syllabi. What’s nice about the song the student above emailed me is that it includes both of these elements:
Imagine if the life that you thought you shared
Wasn’t really there.
It was made up in your mind,
Could be anyone/anywhere
As the dust clears and it all starts to disappear,
It may get harder ’cause you just restarted.
And wherever you are, land on another star!
It may get harder ’cause you just restarted.
It was hard to watch the first season of NBC’s Blacklist without a couple of quotations from character Raymond Reddington staying in my mind.
Lizzy, there’s something I want you to understand about your father Sam.
That night when he took you in– without hesitation– Sam made a difficult choice that changed the course of his life.
And that’s where you find yourself now.
You can turn away and run from it.
You can hide from it.
And if you choose to do that, I’ll fly away.
Or you can face it and confront it engage it.
And maybe– maybe you prevail and rise above it.
Without ‘dumbing down’ existentialism, or even claiming that there is really one philosophical school with this name, it is clear that choice (and the difficulties that go along with it) is one of the themes that would have to be present for us to think of something as existentialist.
I always explain to my students that it is perfectly possible to be a religious existentialist – indeed if you can accept a more naturalistic reading of Nietzsche it starts to look as though existentialism has a deeply religious character.
Jean-Paul Sartre, however, was very much an atheistic existentialist. For him, it was the very ‘death of God’ that left us with a feeling he called abandonment, there are no objective rules to live by for we are not designed by any supreme being. There is no design for humans, so the very best we can do is choose the criteria we will choose by and not hide from the fact that we are doing so… This sounds strange but, according to Sartre, the majority of people live in a satate of consistently ans almost convincingly lying to themselves that this is the way thgs are. Sartre calls this mauvaise foi or ‘bad faith’. In episode 3, Red shots a verging on innocent IT guy saying only:
I believe I will always do whatever I feel I have to do to keep you alive.
Not all of Reddington’s statements fit with everything Sartre said for the latter believed that the ‘first few chapters’ never determine what someone will be, though he would completely agree that the end of the final chapter of our lives is the only time one can say that we have any concrete or fixed essence. For more, read what I have written about ‘Sartre on Nothingness’.
I think people in my class might be a little surprised to see this on my blog. It’s not really the sort of International Baccalaureate Philosophy Internal Assessment stimulus I would immediately think of. Having said that, it is probably proof that you could write your essay using nearly anything as your non-philosophical text.
I more than appreciate that this might not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but it is a pretty beautiful insight into (at least part of) what it means to be a person. I was made to think of a whole lot of philosophy: Wittgenstiein on behaviourism, Sartre’s account of intersubjectivity but perhaps more than anything (and this will be less surprising to my students) I thought of Kierkegaard on consciousness.
This Danish philosopher used the word ‘despair’ to describe human existence that manages to fulfil our created potential of becoming a ‘self’. Some people describe this as the gap between the ‘me I am’ and the ‘me I could be’. But ‘gap’ is a problematic word… It makes you think of le Néant in Sartre. And it is clear to see this influence of the Dane on the frenchman but Kierkegaard is talking about the way the two relate together. It is the relationship that can constitute myself. This is the difference between atheistic and religious existentialism. We know that SK thought we were created with and for this relational ability – that it is part of our design but also our potential (Evans). In 1846 he wrote that
“people in our time, because of so much knowledge, have forgotten what it means to exist”*
This is perhaps more true now than then, but in this clip Sandra Bullock shows she is not one of (or at least knows people that are not) those people. ‘Despair’ is a word that ‘turns off’ a lot of new Kierkegaard readers but what he means is not what one might initially think.
The tension that SB talks about, the ‘struggle’, is very close to what SK is on about. Now Kierkegaard thought that we could either avoid this reality or tackle it head on but only ever in a ‘difficult’ way. It is only the struggle towards a goal, the ‘relationship’ with that goal, that refuses to bury oneself in an objective system and does not hide from the ‘torn apartness’ of subjective experience that allows a human to claim to be a self in any real way.
I used ‘Yellow’ by Nathan Sawaya as an IB Philosophy Core Theme Paper 1 exam Stimulus a couple of years ago. I didn’t know a great deal about him but having watched the short video on youtube, I’m more convinced that his work would be an excellent thing to discuss in ib philosophy as well as in ToK (Theory of Knowledge).
You could talk about the relationship between maths and art in ToK, and even discuss topics like determinism and Sartre’s understanding of nothingness in the ‘What makes is ‘us’?’ section of the course. Awesome.
“You could have freed me yesterday, or tomorrow. I think you came to me now before this boy is put to the knife because you knew I’d counsel restraint. You came to hear me say it because you believe it yourself. You’re not a man who slaughters innocents for gain or glory.”
For those of you that have read Sartre’s Existentialism & Humanism (click below for this section) this advice may sound very similar to something Sartre wrote in refutation of traditional normative ethics. Sarte’s point was that all action originates in freedom, even if that freedom is used to convence oneself that on is not free. We’ll talk about it in class, but this could be a great IA stimulus…
To my shame I only watched this recently and it was, in my humble opinion, a quite brilliant picture. Each of the main characters would be more than sufficient for an Internal Assessment or even an Extended Essay in IB philosophy.
Where to start though…? Again, this is the sort of film that will draw one’s own philosophical persuasions to the surface, but I would expect that most philosophically literate members of the audience will be prodded into reflecting upon existentialism. Perhaps because of my own areas of particular interest, I found myself thinking about the relationship between Sartre and Kierkegaard. Kevin Spacey’s character undergoes a change. He realises he is free to do what he chooses and he begins a journey towards living authentically. Despite initial impressions, there is also an ethical dimension to this change; this is most noticable when he decides not to sleep with his daughter’s friend. This authenticity is placed in stark contrast with the Colonel, who moves in across the street. He is clearly deeply unhappy and (partly due to his belief in the Divine) is an emblem of the inauthentic life – lying to himself about even his own sexuality.
There are also a number of characters living by systems, or what Kiekegaaard would have called ‘ethical frameworks’. These people spend every part of their energy trying to realise a self-created goal. This, as the Dane points out, is a project doomed to failure: either one realises the goals and find this unsatisfactory (causing despair) or spends a whole life struggling and never reaching (equally as bad). Anyway before I feel myself being drawn into my own essay I will stop. Watch it.
Finn’s girlfriend has been using her power to make him exactly who she would like him to be… At first he objects, but then realises to keep her – this will be the only way… His friends object, giving little credence to his protest that he like being ‘better than he is’…
This isn’t you, this isn’t who you are!
Finn: “We were happy.”
Jess: “It was bullshit and you know it! Stop Lying to yourself.”